3 Ways Nonprofit Organizations Can Build Social Capital

Nonprofits and associations, particularly those organizations with strong grassroots needs, should focus on building social capital for greater engagement.


In a democratic society, citizens have the freedom to organize and form social networks, movements, and cause-oriented groups. 

Social capital refers to the collective importance of relationships among individuals, and the beneficial effect of these social networks on the greater good. It’s not strictly a general assessment about how friendly a group of people can be -- social capital is important.

Before we delve into why social capital is important for grassroots movements and organizations, it’s important to note that nonprofit organizations and grassroots coalitions don’t necessarily facilitate social capital. With that said, grassroots movements and campaigns often grow from communities of like-minded people where social capital inherently exists. Also, membership-based associations may be based around individuals with strong social ties to one another, or conversely, with members who have never met each other and don’t care to meet. To this end, social capital and formal nonprofit/grassroots groups are not one and the same.

Social networks are powerful. Strong networks of likeminded people build social capital, and it’s through these civically-centered coalitions that citizens are able to work together to reach common goals. Goals can be policy-related, community-focused or even more micro-based. In an empirical study conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), researchers found that civic participation fosters social capital.

Consider social capital as a resource nonprofit organizations can access for engagement, especially in terms of political advocacy. Supporters that trust organizations, and their peers involved in the organization, are more likely to participate in organization-led advocacy initiatives.

Why? Trust and reciprocity build social capital.

People that trust one another are more likely to help each other. As a matter fact, as esteemed political scientist Robert Putnam points out, if you simply nod your head to acknowledge someone as you walk by them, that person is consequently more likely to help you out should you need help.

Researchers at the Saguaro Seminar of the JFK School of Government at Harvard University reaffirm that social capital building occurs around the principle of trust. Activities centered around trust-building fall on a scale of low trust-building to high trust-building levels. According to the researchers, the highest levels of trust-building activities for groups involve “deeper introductions as part of a meeting” or an event where individuals “pair up and share their extended stories”.

So, what can organizations and associations do to develop social capital from within? Here are 3 ideas:  

  • Pair new members with active members, helping individual members build interpersonal connects with one another, and helping new members feel welcome. Think of this pairing as a "mentor"/"mentee" relationship. 
  • Work to create social bonds between supporters by hosting networking events, casual get-togethers, events centered around meals, or interesting speakers. Provide members with value by offering opportunities where they can not only get to know one another, but also get to know the organization they belong to in personal way.
  • Listen to your members' opinions and let them know they bring value to the organization. Send out surveys or questionnaires asking them to provide feedback. An organization's lifeblood is its membership or grassroots base. Value your supporters. 

At the end of the day, social capital is all about relationships. It’s important that interpersonal relationships among members exist, but that the relationship is extended to the overall symbol/idea of the organization they belong to. Nonprofits and associations, particularly those organizations with strong grassroots needs, should focus on building social capital. For groups that participate in nonprofit advocacy, collective engagement will be stronger, leading to a more effective organization in the policy sphere.

For more information on social capital, check out the Saguaro Seminar at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

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